Social Media: Do I Know You?

This essay marks the first in a series by SSRC’s resident social media specialist, Thom Fredericks, exploring the use of social media in social science research. We’ll be happy to work with you on incorporating social media as a research object or tool, or to publicize your research and connect with other researchers and communities. 

Many of us think we know what social media is, how it’s used, and what it’s all about. However, social media is an ever-changing form, prone to shifting like a leaf in the wind. People, web-users, software designers, and the marketplace are always changing how technology and innovation are used and therefore how they are defined and adopted. Social media is one form of technological innovation that is continually being reshaped and redefined. So then, what is social media and how can we use it in the worlds of social science and the humanities? Let’s begin by taking a quick look at what social media is.

Social media outlets consist of a variety of Internet communications from forums and blogs (text, video, audio) to content sharing (photo, video, social book marking, etc). Each of these forms helps the user develop a social presence, or social identity, through the process of self-presentation, self-disclosure, and content creation. For those who follow the concepts of Erving Goffman, the social media world is a virtual cornucopia of information and an excellent resource to tap into.

Most agree that there are four main types of social media, each with a slightly different use: collaborative efforts (forums, wikis), individual efforts (blogs/microblogs), content communities (photo/video sharing), and social networking (Facebook, LinkedIn). There are also two other large social media enclaves worth mentioning: worlds and virtual social worlds. (Kaplan and Haenlein, 2010)*

Social media is made up of user-generated content and relies on an interactive communication that is largely reciprocal (commenting, sharing links, link-backs). At its core, social media is about connecting with others – individuals, groups, and institutional organizations. It’s about networking and building your network. It can be used for marketing, informing, sharing thoughts and opinions, or engaging with friends and family on a personal level. However you choose to participate in social media, it requires a personal investment of time and consistent effort to provide content and engage with others in that particular social media form.

Sharing information and taking part in this highly flexible and easily accessible medium does not necessarily equate to a high degree of interaction. Successfully instituting such an initiative takes time, planning, and careful consideration. When implementing a social media strategy one needs to determine a purpose and an audience, keeping in mind that such efforts are not always easily measured. Successfully measuring your campaigns will depend on your purpose and your intended audience. Most importantly, when developing a social media strategy, especially for the social sciences and humanities, one needs to be creative and think outside the box.

*Kaplan, Andreas M.; Michael Haenlein (2010). “Users of the world, unite! The challenges and opportunities of social media”.


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