I. Understanding Social Networking Systems
Social Media in Popular Culture
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Social media is a collection of websites, applications, services, and other computer-based mediums that allow people to share information and communicate. The concept of “connections” is key to social media. These connections can include friends, colleagues, people with similar interests, and more. These connections ultimately lead to virtual communities that simulate traditional community groups in varied areas as fan clubs, friend reunions, and art showcases. Thanks to main hubs (usually search engines), such as Google, Bing, and Yahoo, social media category groups can interact and influence one another.
This chapter highlights the role of online social media in popular culture. It begins with a visual and explanatory high-level topology of online social media. Some of the most popular social networking sites are presented and generally described for the benefit of the reader including Twitter, Facebook, and Linkedln. Other branches of social media are also explored, such as content sharing sites, discussion forums, news and blog sites, online shopping and review platforms, and social media revolving around games and music. Concrete examples of well-known platforms and websites that fall under each social media branch are presented. Finally, some platforms and social media phenomena such as internet memes are expressed as a hybridization of other social media categories, as they fulfill multiple usage functions of generalized social media topology groups simultaneously.
The Topology of Social Media
How might we begin to organize and define the vast breadth and depth of internet social media sites? Unfortunately, there is no explicit way to classify every significant social media community, mainly since there often exists a considerable overlap between any two or more categories. However, a general
(but not explicit), social media topology is given in Figure 2.1. In the next sections, we will examine some of these community types in more detail.
FIGURE 2.1: Topology of major social media sites.
Social Networking Sites
When examining social media in a practical and modern sense, a discussion will typically be within the context of popular digital social networks that are used to absorb and spread information within a population. More than any other type of social network in the past, digital social networks have revolutionized the speed and reach of information spread. News, rumors, and advertisements can reach from one section of the globe to another in mere seconds indirectly through these networks. These digital (or online) social networks are specifically designed to collect and form online communities and encourage the spread of information within the group and between adjacent groups.
Twitter is a social networking site that allows users to post a short limited- character message over the internet via the Twitter website, a dedicated application, or a mobile device such as a cellphone. Twitter posters, or “Tweeters”, will often post a "tweet” concerning what they are doing or thinking. The tweet is often accompanied by a reference tag known as a hashtag. It allows users to view similarly tagged tweets as a collection, usually referencing the same topic, event, or idea. Twitter is also used to post pictures, news, and current events. Many view Twitter as a quick and easy way to discover what is happening around the world by searching relevant keywords for news, trends, or current events.
Twitter is an especially popular social media platform for analyzing and collecting social network data due to its direct and traceable nature. Hashtag trends and “retweets” are relatively easy to manage and visualize compared to other online social media systems. Often, data science and machine learning algorithms for social research use Twitter as a primary data collection source.
In contrast to Twitter, Facebook, as a social media networking site, focuses on each user’s “News Feed”. The News Feed is a page customized for each user, highlighting and tracking the activities of their fellow community “friends”. Users make posts and friends of users can comment on or “like” said posts as a sign of agreement or interest. The idea of photograph or image sharing is much more pronounced and integral to Facebook than Twitter. On Facebook, each user’s homepage is a collection of posts, discussions, and events based on the user’s friend community’s activities. Given the more personal nature of Facebook, there have been several concerns over privacy issues as to where and how this posting, liking, photograph viewing, and commenting information is shared.
Facebook is often marketed as a way for real-life friends to stay in touch after separations due to distance, change of lifestyle, or other key dividing factors that would otherwise cause individuals to lose track of one another slowly. Due to Facebook’s personal nature, it has become a breeding ground for several forms of information spread, such as targeted advertisements, social movement growth, and news article distribution. Recently, Facebook has seen negative attention for a lack of content moderation, leading to concerns over the spreading of hate speech and the proliferation of fake news .
While Twitter and Facebook are online social media networking sites catered toward news, opinionated commentary, and socializing, Linkedln serves individuals and communities interested in employment-centered and professional networking. On Linkedln. employers post job openings and company information pages, while job seekers set up professional profiles that include resumes, job experience, and curriculum vitae. Both employers and job seekers form “connections” through the site to build a network of like-minded professionals to pair employers with prospective employees. Users can follow various companies, “endorse” another user for a particular profile stated skill, post job listings, and more. Unlike many of the other social media sites, Linkedln is not primarily concerned with casual information spread, so much as an advertisement (of one’s self or one’s company in this case).
Due mainly to its narrowly defined nature, Linkedln is not seen as controversial or particularly interesting insofar as large-scale or viral information spread is concerned. Still, it is an excellent example of a small scale focused advertising network. Additionally, it is mostly free from some of the complexities of more open online social networks, such as fake news, political agendas, and socio-cultural divisions. Most users are simply there to post their employment information and have it spread sufficiently to find a connection with a suitable employer toward the end of gaining a job.
Content Sharing Sites
Many social media sites are dedicated to spreading information via media content distribution. This content can be created and uploaded to the site by a user or simply shared or linked by users who view the content and wish to spread it to others within the community. Usually, these sites have short comment sections for community members and use both content category tags and a “like” and “dislike” (or equivalent) system in order to feature media on the site’s front page or target individual users based on interest. Despite the overarching theme of social sharing, sites go about expressing that sharing in different ways. For example, YouTube focuses on sharing videos; Instagram primarily shares pictures and short videos; GIPHY allows users to search for and share short looping videos with no sound resembling GIFs.
Typically, sites primarily focused on social content sharing will encourage users to re-post, link, or otherwise share existing media from other parts of the internet (accompanied by some comments). Savvy artists and content producers will use social sharing sites to display their artwork, videos, and comic strips to a broad audience with similar media interests.
Discussion forums are divided into a variety of topics, and users engage in “discussion threads” under a topic category. Each discussion beings with an original poster who will pose a question, make a statement, or generally post something that attempts to begin a group conversation. Users see these posts and reply based on their opinions, knowledge, or feelings on the topic. In political forums, for example, the original post might be a negative merne about a political candidate, with replies encouraging or disparaging the meme’s general sentiment. Game-based discussion forums may be more focused on an optimal game strategy over subjective opinions about the game’s enjoyment value. Local or event-based forums will be targeted to a specific community and discuss local events, community concerns, and nearby businesses.
Popular discussion forums include Reddit, Quora, Gamespot, and Stack Overflow. Topics of these discussions can consist of general issues, answers to specific questions, video game culture, and programming techniques, to name a few. Given the prevalence of comments in other forms of social media as well as posting pictures and videos in dedicated discussion forums, the lines of what constitutes a “discussion forum” can become blurred with other categories. Generally, however, the site or service should primarily cater to a discussion over other media in this category.
News and Blogs
News sites are widespread and straightforward to conceptualize. Generally speaking, many trusted news sites are simply online counterparts of a news source that has a newspaper or television presence. Sometimes, online-only news sources exist, particularly for niche topics such as news that highlights the latest tech gadgets, or an online news site that collects and distributes upcoming movie spoilers from inside sources. To be considered a legitimate news source, the organization and writers must be trusted to be reasonably impartial and put a reasonable effort into fact-checking news before it is published online. Many sites try to pose as legitimate news, but in reality, they have a hidden agenda or interest, which causes it to report unverified or even false stories and paint them as genuine. This practice is what is normally referred to as "fake news” or active misinformation.
Blogs, short for “weblogs”, are primarily internet-based informal opinions and discussions on a specific topic. Their main purpose is to express an opinion or viewpoint and oftentimes to encourage discussion in a comments section following the blog article. It is important to note that blogs do not attempt to present themselves as official news, however well written and thoughtful they may be. Still, they are an essential medium for spreading information and especially opinions within a population. Especially popular blogs might become linked to an online social media site and spread far beyond their initial intended audience. While most blogs are text-based, they can also be comprised primarily of video, artwork, photographs, or audio (in the case of podcasts).
Shopping and Reviews
For many of us, shopping via social media is an integrated (but perhaps invisible) part of our everyday lives. We search for nearby local businesses on Google Maps. We buy something on Amazon that we need, but don’t want to go from store to store searching for the perfect item. These kinds of consumer- based social media groups include shopping networks and trade-based networks. Targeted advertisements and brand or site loyalty play an important role in this social media category.
Many online shopping sites encourage postings in the form of user reviews. A consumer review subnetwork critiques multiple brands, products, businesses, or services and is often attached to a shopping or travel network. Reviews are becoming increasingly important for a business to thrive, as the information spread of their positive or negative traits will influence users to neglect or frequent a business. The businesses affected by these reviews strive to spread the information of good reviews and mitigate bad reviews.
Games and Music
Game and music culture is an important and growing segment of social media on the internet. Children, teenagers, and young adults frequently watch videos and read strategy guides for video and tabletop games. Music lovers rely on music curators to help keep up with the latest artists and trends. Within specific music and gaming communities, there are forums, video sharing, and imaging sharing mechanisms to feed an overall media community for any particular interest.
Games hold a special place in social media. With the rise of user-to-user connectivity, two users can play a game remotely despite not being in the same house, or even the same country. Sometimes a large group of users can play a shared game simultaneously. As a result, players interact inside of a game and share their in-game strategies, knowledge, beliefs, and ideas with other players. Game strategies evolve as users grow in skill, in-game friendships or clans grow, and biases against certain players or play-styles emerge.
While games and music are large industries with millions of users and wide acceptance in popular culture, more niche interests can have similar categorizations, each with their discussion forums, instructional videos, and inside jokes. Games and music, however, are two examples of hobbies that have evolved to become part of the public consciousness.
Hybrid Social Media
Clearly, every social media site or application will not fit neatly into the categories presented here (or perhaps any category). Let’s examine Tumblr as an example. It was designed as a social media sharing application and website. Users post pictures, GIFs, and clips of other shared content and give brief tags or comments on that particular piece of media. Over time, Tumblr evolved to include many full-sized blogs, stories, fan-art, and fan-fiction.
Reddit, one of the most popular discussion forums, commonly includes shared links to internet memes, artwork, shopping deals, and news. Due to the nature of discussions, users will naturally reference other websites and media. While Reddit is still primarily a discussion forum, it will overlap with other social media sites with wildly different purposes in order to further or continue an online discussion. Everything from world news to shared jokes to video game deals will often cross the line between social media communities. As social media sites grow, develop, die, and consolidate, their typical usage will likewise change. The presented categories will move or overlap as users continue to define how a service will be utilized.
FIGURE 2.2: Example of an internet meme.
Another hybrid form of social media is an internet meme. Memes are typically, but not necessarily a comedic piece of media (such as a video, image, hashtag, phrase, etc.) that spreads from one individual to another via the internet. Memes are often cultural symbols and social ideas that have a tendency to spread in a viral manner. The emergence of meme usage (along with emojis and GIFs) is often attributed to communication becoming increasingly visually dominant in order to save time or better express ideas beyond those expressible with words alone.
One enduring example of an internet meme is the “Rickrolling” prank. People send a seemingly legitimate internet link, which leads instead to a Rick Astley music video from the 1980s. Another good example is the popular trend of using photo editing software to alter movie posters in extreme and comical ways to express a point and post the new image on social media sites. Many memes that become widespread evolve to suit new situations and desired subjects of commentary. During the 2020 coronavirus pandemic discussed earlier, for example, people were given “stay at home” orders for several months. Many took the time to learn to bake bread since they were unable to go about their routine (generally more exciting) plans for the year. Several memes similar to the one shown in Figure 2.2 were created and posted over social media sites to express frustration through humor.
Internet memes are an excellent way to examine information spread because they leave behind a digital footprint of where they have been on social media and the internet at large. While some may die out and others become viral, they are reasonably easy to trace compared to other types of information. Additionally, because they are usually satire and not viewed as contentious information (memes are either shared or ignored), studying how internet memes spread simplifies many difficult and unpredictable elements encountered when studying other types of information propagation.
- 1. What social media sites do you use? Using the taxonomy presented in Figure 2.1 map the categories of the sites you use.
- 2. Select at least four social media sites or applications not already presented. How woidd they be categorized? Why? Could they fit into more than one category?
- 3. Discuss how social media in popular culture has changed the information dissemination and propagation in society.
- 4. Building on the previous question, discuss how social media outlets have potentially changed society in a positive way.
- 5. Find an internet meme. Explain the message it is trying to convey. Where did the image or idea originate, and how does it relate to the meme?
- 6. Do you think there is a rise in misinformation or false news on several social media outlets? How does this affect your social media use and society in general?
- 7. Building on the previous question, what might be some possible options to control the spread of misinformation on the internet?