What Is Social Media?

Social media is about platforms, channels, networks, wireframes. It’s about the people and corporations who create and maintain these spaces that become social places. Thus, to know social media, one must know the businesses and their capitalist impetousness toward profit.

Social media is multimodal. It combines writing, drawing, speaking, photographing, filming, photoshopping, databasing. Thus, to know social media one needs to know the history of human communication and communication technologies.

Social media is about power flows. It is about individual and collective empowerment, while simultaneously dismantling power imbalances and building new hierarchies. Thus, to know social media, one must know about social, cultural, political, economic power dynamics.

Social media is about data. Data to inform. Data to collect. Data to analyze. Data that can be manipulated. Data that can be revealing. Thus, to know social media, one must understand data and its relationships, uses, and mutability.

Social media is about people. It’s about understanding the social nature of this highly complex animal, that either thinks too much or thinks to little. Thus, to know social media, one must understand the psychological, sociological, anthropological underpinnings of humanity.

Social media is about sharing, connecting, trusting, liking. It’s about having one’s existence recognized, understood, validated, shared. Thus, to know social media, one must know the spiritual, existential, metaphysical that drives us to finding meaning in the chaos of life.

Social media is not just about the digital. Other media have been social media. Social media is not bound by any particular technological parameters. Just like we have always had new media, we have always had social media. Thus, to know social media, one must know media.

Social Media as Epistemology

Social media needs to be seen as a philosophical approach to mediated communication more than any particular technological advancement in communication. Social media is more an epistemology than any specific technology. At the heart of this epistemology is the philosophical perspective of liberalism, equality and equity.

Media is technology. Interpersonal media is technology to connect the one or few to the one or few. Mass media is technology to connect one or few with the sociocultural and/or political-economic capital to many. Social media is technology to connect the one or few lacking such capital to the many with potential to gain capital.

Mass media exhibit a more aristocratic perspective on knowledge, communication, and power: it reflects a capitalist drive of whomever has the most capital has the most control over whose voices are heard, when, where, and how. Such media involves a concentration of power, so that the few have it while the mass did not. The powerful spoke, and the masses listened.

Over the 20th century, this power imbalance began to shift: as more people obtained capital through developments in technologies and channels, the mass gained more choice, control, and thus power. To an extent, the few bought this power shift on themselves by seeking greater profits through increased mass consumption. In a crowded marketplace, that move required more targeted marketing and nichecasting, seen in the embracing of fans and fandom as the means to produce and maintain loyal consumers. When fans know they are needed, then fans have the power — at least, in theory, but certainly more than the nameless, faceless masses.

The valorization, and exploitation, of fandom aligns with the rise of what we currently call “social media” as part of “web 2.0” (as commonly depicted in the online trajectory below). But social media is not new: it is just perhaps more numerous and important than it has ever been.

Social media exists digitally and physically. Non-digital social media include: petroglyphs and cave paintings, sculpture, drawings, postal systems, fanzines, pamphlets, photography, videotape, cassette tapes, pirate radio, and more. Digital social media include: blogs, microblogs, photosharing, videosharing, podcasting, and more.

Indeed, if social media empowers the individual to communicate with individuals or masses, and the human body acts as a medium through spoken and body languages, then the human body was the first social medium. The artificially constructed social media technologies that followed sought to replicate the communication and power dynamics at the core of being human.

The “social” of “social media” refers to the basic feature of the technologies’ ability and requirement for connecting people to each other and to share, commune, collaborate, dialogue and so forth via the technology. It isn’t interpersonal media, where the few engage the few. It isn’t mass media, where the few engage the mass.

Social media involves a philosophy of empowering the disempowered or individuals with lower political and/or economic capital to push back by gaining social and/or cultural capital due to their social network, that exists physically and digitally. Thus, if a technology’s intent and use in some way embodies this philosophy, it is social media, capable of creating and partaking in social communication.

Social Communication

Traditional communication models suppose difference: two or more different agents in a network who cannot “know” each other without a symbolic exchange of meaning. We communicate, then, to bridge the “gap” in meaning and knowing that exists between “us,” which positions people as individuals first and collective second. I am I with what I know, and we become us only after communication. Communication, thus, exists as transmission.

Conversely, communication can be seen as bonding, that which forms and maintains the “us” because of shared meaning that always-already exists. From this perspective, differences matter less than similarities, and communication reinforces similarities despite differences. Communication is not about meaning transmission but meaning preconditionally existing as part of “us” and being reinforced.

From the transmission model, communication means linear travel, A to B and B to A; even if synchronous, communication exists as linear travel through time-space. From the precondition model, communication exists as enveloping and penetrating, AB and BA. It is entanglement, not movement.

Yet, even this binary is reductionist and simplistic. The true nature of communication is situationally determined. It may be more or less transmission, more or less entanglement, depending on the situation. Different situational factors provide different contexts in which communication is more transmission while other factors produce more entanglement.

One of those determining factors could be the medium chosen for communication, and the power dynamics it reflects and reinforces, as discussed above. Mass media and mass communication reflect more transmission but can be entanglement, while interpersonal media and interpersonal communication reflect more entanglement but can be transmission. Social media and social communication, however, are almost always both simultaneously.

I want us to reconsider social communication less from the speech pathology perspective and more from a communication literacy one: https://asha.org/uploadedFiles/ASHA/Practice_Portal/Clinical_Topics/Social_Communication_Disorders_in_School-Age_Children/Components-of-Social-Communication.pdf

Social communication is potentially interpersonal communication and mass community simultaneously. Social communication breaks down essentialist binaries of this/that, either/or that have previously constructed and reinforced barriers that have maintained the power imbalance. Rather than ascribe power due to one’s heritage and position in life, social media and social communication reflect the liberal assumptions of equality and equity that then becomes the neoliberal assumptions of meritocracy through talent and work.

Furthermore, social media and social communication demonstrates the complex nature of power as a flow that moves and is moveable through individual and/or collective agency and contextual factors that may indeed be unquantifiable due to their scope. No formula exists for a 100% success rate in predicting and creating “virality” because humans are both subjective and objective entities that reside in both subjective and objective realities. Human both respond to objectiveness and produce objectiveness through their subjectiveness — making both humans and reality too complex to fully map, explain, and predict.

While interpersonal and mass communication studies have tried to do such mapping, social communication studies must take a different approach. Rather than map to predict, we should map to understand. Such mapping would not serve capitalist drives but would serve communication literacy needs that lie at the very heart of our civilization’s survival and success. Rather than locate best practices to “win,” we must learn how to better commune with others to foster collaboration.

Social mediums that foster social communication have demonstrated the ability for such outcomes — as well as their polar opposite. We must study and teach social communication by seeing social media not as owned by any online platform but as existing in the nature of some communication technologies over others.

Social Communication Studies

To teach this epistemological approach to “social media” and foster “social communication studies,” I propose adjusting two existing courses I teach on digital communication technologies and convergent media into the following:

  • CAS 234 Digital Communication Technology becomes CAS 234 Social Media. This course would be focused on the history, theory, and criticism of social mediums compared to interpersonal and mass mediums. The course would be broken up into the following units to compare these three types of communication technologies.
    • Concepts and Theories: Interpersonal, Mass, and Social Media
    • Print: Writing and Drawing that covers clay tablets and paper; the printing press; petroglyphs, cave drawings and canvas painting.
    • Photosensitive: Photograph and Film that covers the art and science of photography and film.
    • Electricity: Sound and Wires that goes from telegraph to phonograph to telephone.
    • Electromagnetic: Waves and Magnets which looks at radio and television, as well as cassette tapes and holograms.
    • Digitization: Computers and Robotics which also means covering artificial intelligence.
    • Networks: Online and Social to look at the internet (networked computers), the Web (networked documents), and Web 2.0 (networked people) to possible Web 3.0 (networked objects).
    • Mobility: Cells and Cybernetics to cover cellular and wifi technology as well as apps and cybernetics.
    • Interactive Narratives: Digital Games and Virtual Reality that goes from computer and video games to also consider virtual worlds and reality.
  • CAS 352 Convergent Media becomes CAS 352 Transmedia Design and Production. This course could be focused on the design and production of strategic communication campaign to persuade, to inform, and/or to entertain. The course would be broken up into the following units to prepare and promote the campaigns’ design and production.
    • Theories and Concepts like convergence, transmedia, interactivity, dialogue, social media, social communication.
    • Design and Strategy that covers the basics of both as well as theories about users to get at user-centered design.
    • Websites and Blogs covers the purposes of each technology, how to construct it, and how to analyze it.
    • Podcasts and Webseries covers the purposes of each technology, how to construct it, and how to analyze it.
    • Photosharing and Microblogs covers the purposes of each technology, how to construct it, and how to analyze it.
    • Mobile Apps and Digital Gamescovers the purposes of each technology, how to construct it, and how to analyze it.

My hope is to use these two courses to develop a textbook and/or general press guidebook to help students and professionals understand social media and social communication as well as how to implement a communication campaign that strategically utilizes these technologies for a specific goal. It would cover the span of human history for how our desire to communicate shaped, and unshaped, and reshaped, our species and civilization.

The hope is that by teaching more people who to engage in social communication, even more people will feel empowered to make the world a better place. If you know how to communicate, you have more power than you may think. With good communication literacy skills, you know how and what to communicate in any situation. Even if you don’t think you have the economic, political, or sociocultural power, you have rhetorical power.

Overall, I hope to argue for the need to harmonize different theories and methods in communication and media studies into a unified approach to improve research and literacy skills in our complex world.

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