‘Social media’ first emerged as a term in the late 1990s, and became popular in the first decade of the 21st century with the emergence of platforms such as MySpace, Facebook, YouTube and Twitter. The term ‘social media’ is now commonly used to refer to a range of internet platforms as well as a general interactive mode of engagement via online platforms. But it also refers to the socio-technical blending of tools and ideologies that focus on the making and sharing of user-generated content, and maximising the amount of data captured.
Whether as a series of applications, a mode of engagement or an ideological perspective, social media as a concept sits within a long history of issues relating to communication, identity, labour, privacy and regulation. While the term ‘social network site’ became associated with a specific form of site that prioritised and visualised social connections, social media came to refer to a wider ecology of services, design approaches, and communicative spaces and styles. Social media genres include everything from content-sharing venues (YouTube, Last.fm), to forms of blogging and microblogging (Tumblr, Pinterest, Twitter), social networks (Facebook, Google+), location check-in (Foursquare) and hook-up apps (Grindr, Tinder).
After the emergence of the internet, Usenet (launched in 1978), Geocities (1994) and LiveJournal (1999) all enabled users to share content and establish links with like-minded others. By 1997, with the establishment of the social network SixDegrees, profile creation and listing of friends became established activities, which were then consolidated by Friendster in 2002. Over the next four years, MySpace, Facebook, YouTube then Twitter all launched, with Facebook becoming the dominant space for social sharing and ‘friending’: adding people to a list of social connections that can be seen by others.
While most popular social media sites are based in the United States, the popularity of each has been mirrored in Australia. Australia has not had success with launching geographically specific social media services; however, the architecture of sites such as YouTube, Facebook and Twitter allows for customisation and localised content. For instance, a central function of Twitter is ‘trending topics’, which aggregate the popular conversations on the site; since 2010, trending topics have been tailored according to region or country, providing a snapshot of what users in a particular nation are discussing, and reflecting national interests in politics, culture, media and current affairs.
Social media now account for a significant percentage of time spent online by adults, and social networking has become a dominant activity on computers and mobile devices. Consequently, social media are also a vital communication channel for essential information, adopted widely in Australia by emergency services and government bodies. During the 2011 Queensland floods, Twitter was used as a way to disseminate information from emergency services and provide disaster relief. Challenging the assumption that social media are trivial, Twitter was used as a mechanism for communicating information about life-threatening events.
Social media technologies can also be understood as participants within wider networks of communication, interaction and change. Two examples are the role of social media in news production and dissemination, and in political activism. Social media can be seen to have contributed to changes in the industrial production of news, allowing media consumers to interact critically with journalists on mainstream media news sites, contribute to stories or establish their own news-oriented blogs or Twitter feeds. Many large news organisations include social media as a way to link to their stories, as well as seek out news leads and sources. At a structural level, social media services reflect what one’s friends are reading, and make suggestions based on the interests of a wider social network. This algorithmically generated ‘social news’ ties an individual’s news-consumption patterns to their social graph. Facebook has blurred the definition of social news further by defining all updates from contacts as a ‘news feed’.
Activists and organisers use social media tools to advertise upcoming gatherings, to document protests via mobile photography and video, and to discuss political issues—as was seen in the emergence of the #DIYRainbow movement in 2013. What began as a local protest against the removal of a rainbow crossing in Sydney’s Darlinghurst spread across the city, interstate and internationally. The movement involved people creating a rainbow with chalk and sharing the images via Facebook, Twitter or Instagram. The protest became synonymous with GLBTIQ rights and same-sex marriage. It drew on the affordances of social media in a range of ways: eyewitnessing, crowd-sourcing and media-sharing. Protests increasingly are organised and advertised using social media such as Twitter and Facebook, and these social media spaces in turn become a useful way for issues to be disseminated. While the movement was centrally organised through Facebook, the organisers encouraged the spread and co-option of the practice of chalking, and relied on users to spread the movement through their networks.
However, social media’s role in shifting social and industrial dynamics should not be exaggerated. Rather than being a single catalytic agent, social media contribute and engage within a complex dynamic of media forms, functioning as one set of communication channels among many—closely interlinked with mobile phones, newspapers, radio, television and face-to-face contact.
Social media have also become associated with a set of ideas and values. Much of the early rhetoric about social media emphasised online engagement, including content-sharing, democratic engagement, user creativity and platforms for individual voice. However, significant criticisms of this framing have emerged. The most popular social media spaces are privately owned by companies typically based in the United States, which have a strong financial interest in designing systems that extract as much personal data as possible from users, including location, date of birth, relationship status and cultural interests, as well as a wide array of images and videos. Exploiting users’ content and labour allows for more targeted advertising, as well as enabling the accumulation of vast individual and collective data sets that can be mined or sold for a variety of purposes. Thus social media are simultaneously about everyday social interaction between users, sharing and generating content, and the profit-oriented collection of large quantities of data within privately owned systems.
Similarly, privacy and data regulation emerged as central issues for social media. User privacy settings are often designed to expose personal information; within some platforms, data can be hidden but are kept by design. Users have very little power to control how their personal data are used, or to participate in the making of data-governance rules within platforms. The dynamics between identity and anonymity are also navigated through different platforms, with some (4chan) allowing complete anonymity and others (Google+, Facebook) requiring the use of real names. There are many reasons why people continue to deploy forms of anonymity and secrecy, from being able to play with identity markers to enabling sharing of private information or escaping abuse.
While social media can be cast in terms of platform design and technological affordances, they also encompass a wide set of arenas related to the conduct of social life, including the representation of self, connection to others, engagement in public and semi-public space, consumption and production of media, exploitation of data, and the fostering of particular forms of human attention and communication.
REFs: d.m. boyd and N.B. Ellison, ‘Social network sites: Definition, history, and scholarship’, Jnl of Computer-Mediated Communication, 13(1) (2007); A. Bruns et al., #qldfloods and @QPSMedia (2012); M. Castells, The Rise of the Network Society, vol. 1 (2000).
KATE CRAWFORD and KATHLEEN WILLIAMS