Thursday, 19 December 2013

Further Thoughts on Defining Social Media

By Janet Salmons, PhD #einterview and

The New Social Media, New Social Science network is dedicated to an exploration of whether and how social science researchers should embrace social media. But what is “social media”? I considered this need for definition in an NSMNSS post. Subsequently we convened a Tweetchat and also offered the opportunity for input through a questionnaire. After reviewing the dialogue, comments and materials referenced, a more nuanced definition of social media is taking shape.

Helen Mara pointed to the word “social” as key in describing the scope of synchronous or asynchronous conversation possible. "Social" may refer to posts that are public (can be read by anyone) or private (exchange between people in defined group). Antonella Esposito suggested that social media refers to a “complex ecology, not just specific tools.” Some of the comments provide an almost poetic view: Chareen Snelson suggested that “Social media might be thought of as a stream of consciousness shared online,” while a questionnaire responded described “channels without gatekeepers.”

Digging more deeply, Tweetchatters and questionnaire respondents aimed to define social media by how it is used, and its characteristics. NSMNSS staff suggested that “social media is about dialogue & interaction, learning networks & collaboration.” Chareen added that “social media technologies permit or restrict the flow of ideas depending on what those technologies support. We are constrained by what social media platforms permit. Tools can vanish or change without notice during research.” A questionnaire respondent noted the potential for global exchange for “the primary purpose of expanding our virtual society.” Alternatively, one questionnaire respondent noted the potential for individuals as well: “for personal-only advantage (e.g. online back-up of research materials)”.

Joe Murphy augmented the Tweetchat with a diagram from his new book, Social Media, Sociality, and Survey Research (Hill, Dean, & Murphy, 2013). He suggested that a wide range of Information and Communications Technologies could be consider social media “as long as multiple participants are engaged.”

Based on my consideration of the network’s input, I suggest the following working definition.

The term “social media” refers to websites, online platforms or applications that allow for one-to-one, one-to-many, or many-to-many synchronous or asynchronous interactions between users who can create, archive and retrieve user-generated content. In social media, the user is producer; communication is interactive and networked with fluid roles between those who generate and receive content (Bechmann & Lomborg, 2013). Social media allows users to define and create groups, lists or circles of "friends" or "followers" who have access to content and can participate in dialogue.

Social media may include commercial social networking or user-developed sites, blogs and microblogs, photo- and video-sharing sites, chat and messaging tools, virtual social or game worlds, collaborative projects, forums and online communities, and/or crowdsourcing sites.

Feel free to use the comment feature to suggest further refinements!

Bechmann, A., & Lomborg, S. (2013). Mapping actor roles in social media: Different perspectives on value creation in theories of user participation. New Media & Society, 15(5), 765-781. doi: 10.1177/1461444812462853
Hill, C. A., Dean, E., & Murphy, J. (2013). Social media, sociality, and survey research. San Francisco: Wiley.

Wednesday, 4 December 2013

What Social Media means to my research

By Amy Aisha Brown, PhD Blogger

After reading Dr Janet Salmons’s last post (Defining our terms: What is “social media”?), I was inspired to think about what the term means to me but coming up with a definition is not that easy. Is social media defining platforms, the affordances of platforms, something else? Is it the online factor? Because it is participatory? How far does the label extend? I am excited about the #NSMNSS tweetchat we are going to have on 5 December (details here) where we can discuss some of these questions and think about what social media means to us as a group, but after failing to find a personal definition for this potentially all-encompassing term, I thought a better approach might be for me to think about what social media means or brings to my doctoral research.

On a basic level I could say, “social media is data”. That is, I use Twitter as my way into investigating how the English language in Japan is talked about. This is not a common approach in studies of language ideology, but Twitter has a massive active user base (around 10% of the Japanese population if recent statistics from in the loop are accurate), and tweets are both accessible and plentiful. In fact, tweets in Japanese mentioning the English language are so numerous that it is impossible for me to collect them all—a matter for another time. But while these features show the potential of Twitter to collect a vast amount of potentially relevant data, what is it that makes Twitter, as opposed to some other source of information, useful for undertaking my investigations?

I could have chosen to look at how the English language is talked about in Japanese newspaper reports, policy documents, or organisational websites, or used interviews or focus groups. However, what previous studies using these techniques have yet to focus on is how English is talked about across domains, from the mass media, to business, through to daily conversation. And it is at this point that Twitter comes in.

Until recently Twitter’s about page claimed it to be “a real time information network”, and the phrase still appears elsewhere on the site. However, Twitter is not just news and information, it is also a social space where people interact, comment, and chat. This social side of Twitter means that I can look at how ‘official’ information sources (newspapers, organisations, etc) talk about English and how people talk about English in response to those sources, but I can also take into consideration how it is talked about in wider conversation, something that would be near impossible using other kinds of data.

So, for me, the massive user base of Twitter and the online, real-time, accessibility of it cannot be underestimated, but what is really important is the social, collaborative, participatory side of Twitter that enables the talk about my topic (and pretty much any other) to thrive.

Monday, 2 December 2013

Defining YouTube as Social Media

In this post Chareen Snelson, Ed.D. considers YouTube as Social Media...

Defining Social Media in General

The discussion surrounding the definition of “social media” brings to light just how challenging it can be to precisely define something that we think we understand until we try to explain it. For many of us, Facebook, Twitter, or YouTube spring to mind during discussions of social media. However, these are specific manifestations of a broader phenomena. From my perspective, social media represents a set of technologies that allow people to share content and make connections with others online. Although my perspective may capture the essence of what I think social media is, it may or may not be in agreement with what others think. One way to explore this is with a simple search phrase in Google using, “define: social media.” The results of this search reveal a plethora of definitions. One of the simplest definitions for social media shown as a dictionary entry near the top of the search results is, “websites and applications used for social networking.” Scrolling down we find that the Urban Dictionary has a rather humorous definition for social media based on the functionality of various platforms. For example, “Facebook-I like doughnuts,” “Twitter-I'm eating #doughnuts,” and “Youtube-Here I am eating doughnuts.”  (See:

I regard Wikipedia as a nice launching point for quests such as this, so I took a few minutes to explore their rather lengthy article on the topic of social media. There I found a quoted definition from Kaplan and Haenlein (2010), who define social media as “...a group of Internet-based applications that build on the ideological and technological foundations of Web 2.0, and that allow the creation and exchange of User Generated Content” (p. 61). The Kaplan and Haenlein definition has also been quoted by van Dijck (2013) and possibly others. I rather like this definition since it has found its way into the peer-reviewed scholarly literature. Whether or not it is the final word on how we define social media remains to be seen.

Defining YouTube as Social Media

At first glance, the attributes of YouTube seem to align well with Kaplan and Haenlein's definition of social media. With YouTube we have a group of internet-based applications that support the creation and exchange of user-generated video. We can easily upload our videos, create our own channels, connect with other YouTube users, or share videos across other social media platforms such as Facebook or Twitter. Yet, some of the core attributes of YouTube are changing, which seem to threaten some of the social aspects of interest to users and researchers. 

My perspective on this topic is that of an educator who teaches a course on YouTube and digital video production and a researcher who uses YouTube as a data source. My involvement with YouTube has been quite active since its early days. It is beyond the scope of this post to discuss the entire history of YouTube or my evolution through teaching and researching about it. However, I would like to share a couple of observations about YouTube and some of the changes that may impact how it fits in the social-media landscape.

1. The Changing Nature of “Community” on YouTube
YouTube has always defined itself as a “community” with tools that support interaction among its users (YouTube, n.d.). When I first started teaching courses on YouTube in 2008 my students could add each other as friends and they could easily contact each other privately through the YouTube messaging system. Back then, YouTube seemed to be more about videos and friend connections. In 2011, YouTube merged the friends tool with the subscriptions tool (Scott, 2011). We could no longer have friends on YouTube, only subscribers who we communicated with via comments or private messages. It seemed as though the idea of community was beginning to change.

In early November of 2013 YouTube implemented a dramatic change to how it handles comments (Janakiram & Zunger,2013). The comment system is now integrated with Google+. Part of the reason for this was apparently to deal with the plague of hateful, racist, and vulgar commentary that had been going for the eight plus years of YouTube’s existence. Responses to the new comment system varied from positive to very negative (See the comments posted in response to Janakiram & Zunger,2013). My observations of the switch revealed some rather startling changes. For the first few hours all of the comments were missing from my YouTube channel. Later the comments returned, but with changes to the functionality. I could no longer reply to comments posted prior to the switch, nor could I reply to some of the comments posted after the switch due to some sort of permissions problem. My YouTube inbox displayed a notification that read, “Most comment notifications will now be delivered by Google+ and not to your inbox.” The comments that have been posted to my videos now appear under a “fans” section of the community area of my YouTube account. Over time our former YouTube “friends” have become first “subscribers” and now our “fans” in the YouTube community. This is a very curious change that makes me wonder how we will define YouTube community or how Google+ might take over as the social platform for YouTube.

2. The Changing Availability of “Social Data” on YouTube
The second observation I would like to briefly mention is how the availability of social data has changed over time on YouTube. What I mean by social data is information about the people who comprise the YouTube community. This issue becomes apparent when using YouTube as a data source for social media research projects. In the past, I have used publically available YouTube videos, comments, user profiles, and viewer demographics in my research studies. As already mentioned, comments are changing, which may impact how we access or use them for research. User and viewer demographics are also vanishing from YouTube. As of the time of this writing, we cannot visit a YouTube channel to find out the age or country of origin for the owner of the channel like we used to be able to do. Viewer statistics, which are available under each video player, are now stripped of gender, age, and country of origin information. Whether this information returns in some other form remains to be seen. Perhaps we will learn more about the people we interact with in the YouTube community via Google+.

In conclusion, I would like to return to the idea of defining social media. I have to wonder if we can go beyond broad definitions that encompass a wide variety of applications or practices, which can change or evolve at any time. Perhaps in the end we will find that social media is a spectrum rather than a single definition. I look forward to further discussion on this topic as we collectively grapple with the definition of social media.


Janakiram, N., & Zunger, Y. (2013, November 6). Turning comments into conversations that matter to you [web log post]. Official YouTube Blog. Retrieved from

Kaplan, A.M., & Haenlein, M. (2010). Users of the world, unite! The challenges and opportunities of social media. Business Horizons, 53(1), 59-68. doi:10.1016/j.bushor.2009.09.003

Scott, J. (2011, December 15). YouTube friends and subscriptions are merging, kind of [web log post]. REELSEO. Retrieved from

van Dijck, J. (2013). The culture of connectivity: A critical history of social media. New York: NY. Oxford University Press.

YouTube (n.d.). Community. YouTube Playbook. Retrieved from

Monday, 25 November 2013

Defining our terms: What is “social media”? Janet Salmons, PhD #einterview

Sometimes we communicate by using a few words as a kind of shorthand for big ideas: we know what we mean. Or at least we assume we have a common conception for what we mean when we use certain words, based perhaps on a shared experience of the phenomenon. But when we try to enlarge the conversation and explain it to someone else with whom we do not share experiences or frames of reference, we must be more precise. I believe we are at such a point with some of the words we use in the NSMNSS project. To include and engage others beyond the early adopters and true believers of online research, we may need to build a common language.

As a case in point, last spring NSMNSS conducted a questionnaire about ethical issues in social media research. Using the narrative option many respondents posted concerns about what they perceived as a lack of understanding of online research generally at their institutions and out-of-date guidance from their faculty, dissertation supervisors and institutions. It would seem important to include such scholars and academics in our conversations so they can become more knowledgeable about emerging research methods and topics—and thus better able to guide the next generation of researchers.

How we can begin to more clearly define terms we commonly use? Let’s begin by thinking about that the term social media means. I discovered just how challenging that task might be when I looked for a clear definition to cite for an article I was working on last week.

Some writers conflate “social media” with “Facebook and Twitter”(Baptist et al., 2011; Gibson, 2013; Grose, 2012). This seems inadequate to me for several reasons: Facebook and Twitter are brand names for commercial platforms designed with the unabashed goal of profit for their shareholders. They are not neutral spaces. As well, businesses and brand names change. Other platforms exist and new ones are emerging. What criteria will we use to determine whether those platforms can be described as “social media”?

Some scholars differentiate social media from other online platforms or Information and Communications Technologies (ICTs) by describing characteristics. Social media is characterized by the ability of users to create, store, and retrieve user-generated content  (Benbunan-Fich, 2010). The focus is on the user as producer (Bechmann & Lomborg, 2013) who generates content in various forms—including video, images, text, and geospatial data (Schreck & Keim, 2013). The producer of content interacts with readers:  “effective social media use requires engagement with the audience” (Bik & Goldstein, 2013, p. 5) and readers are t, who themselves producers of content “thus blurring the distinctions between audience and producer as a means to create a distinct form of textual production that draws on both roles”(Meyers, 2012, p. 1023).

Given these descriptions and characterizations, is an email list “social media”? It is interactive and users generate content that can be retrieved. What about a virtual world—where users generate spaces, artifacts and events that engage others, and can be revisited or “retrieved.” In a web conferencing or videoconferencing space users can meet to generate and share content that can be saved and later retrieved. Wikis? Threaded discussion forums? Are they all “social media” or is there a more granular distinction missed in the extant definitions and descriptions?

How do you define the term—and what ICTs would you include or exclude from your conception of “social media”? Use the comment area, or respond to this 5-question survey. I will compile your responses and make a post on NSMNSS to share your collective ideas about ways to define social media!