What Are Social Media?

Contemporary media are widely referred to as “social media.” What does this phrase actually mean? Being social is about having interactions and relationships (Baumeister, 2005) with others; it requires certain competences, which research has identified as being proactively interested in engaging with others, being enjoyable to be with, and being at ease with others (Larson, Whitton, & Hauser, 2007). The Cambridge Dictionary defines the term social as being related to activities in which one meets and spends time with others,1 while Dictionary.com outlines the term along elements of companionship or belonging to a community.2

Indeed, the word social is derived from the same root as the word society. All definitions of social therefore help us to identify the character?istics of a society, which is more than a collection of individuals but is in fact a network of which they are members. As a result of the identification of society as evolving from the sum of relationships and interactions between its members, in order for a society to exist, and in order for an individual to be an active participant in its social network, he or she must communicate. Thus, the connection between social and communications is inevitable. Indeed, one cannot be social without communicating, and all communication with others creates a setting that can be described as social.

The term medium, the second half of the phrase social media, in itself means in between: it either refers to what is neither large nor small, to the material that is used by individuals (particularly artists) to express themselves, or as a form or system of communication.3 The media of communication, therefore, are those apparatuses or technologies that allow humans to transfer information between and among themselves. As such, the media are social by definition, and a medium that is not social is simply not a medium [although some may argue with this determination, for example, Fuchs (2013)].

Even though this observation may seem trivial, scholarly use and everyday practice have chosen to label contemporary media of the twenty-first century as social media as if their so-called sociality differentiated them from the generations of media that preceded them. However, the revolutionary media of the twentieth century—radio, television, and the telephone—were no less social than the media of the twenty-first century—the mobile phone and the different forms of computer-mediated communications, in particular the Internet and the World Wide Web. What differentiates these contemporary media from their predecessors is not that they are social, but that they create an opportunity for a new type of mediated sociability.

We will interchangeably refer to the media as social, contemporary, or new media. We observe them as they are perceived through the eyes of the people that use them, and we contend that they emerged to be different from the traditional media that dominated the twentieth century—the telephone, newspapers, radio, television, and recording devices—in four aspects: unlike the media that preceded them, they provide access to an abundance of information, of channels over which this information can travel, and of storage space in which information can be stored; in contrast to the immobility of the last century’s media, they are mobile; unlike traditional media, they are interactive, in the sense that they allow individuals to tailor the mediated environments based on their own needs; and unlike past technologies, they allow multimediated messages to be conveyed by their users and do not limit them to single forms of mediation.

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