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The ‘social’ bit of ‘social media’

By Razvan Nicolescu, on 20 June 2013

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Photo: Razvan Nicolescu

This post is about the meaning of the term ‘social’ when it is part of the most popular phrase ‘social media’. The huge and diverse literature on ‘social media’ points out, in different ways, that this term signifies the kind of medium, created by usually new technologies and devices, that facilitates various types of social interactions. These interactions could be peer-to-peer or not, real-time or not, with different degrees of interactivity, as well as they could be very far from the initial intentions of the designers and producers of the particular communication technology. Nevertheless, the term ‘social media’ seems to provide an acceptable and intuitive description to this wide range of usages and practices.

The directive and levelling use of the term is perhaps most evident in the mainstream political and economic discourse. These two domains are the most active promoters of the phrase ‘social media,’ especially in relation to the assumed efficacy of this medium to drive the different ambitions on their particular agendas. I think that the most influential discourses and strong pressures that come from this part of the world economy represent the source of essential ambiguities of the term ‘social media.’ One such ambiguity is related to the sheer lack of understanding of, or interest in, what people actually do when they use some ‘social media.’

If specific new media is inherently social, this does not mean that the mainstream discourse or quantitative research would tell too much about the kind of sociality it involves. Therefore, how useful is it to say we are interested in social media? Is there any major media left that is not ‘social’ yet to a certain extent? Any research into the everyday use of ‘social media’ that is not targetting specific groups which enthusiastically embrace new technology, such as Western teenagers, affluent middle-class, or particular professional groups, show that ‘social media’ could be equally loved, ignored or hated. Then, there is no single way to love, ignore or hate, but rather an immense variety of expressions and motivations for these emotions.

The issue then seems to be to give a meaning to the ‘social’ bit of the term ‘social media.’ Does it account for so many things at once that it became theoretically ambiguous; or by contrary, does its polysemy assures a broader reach to our theoretical reasoning? I think we could respond to these kinds of questions if we try to understand what people actually do while everybody else tells them, and us, they are on social network. We will look at the everyday use and non-use of social networking sites and communication technologies in this respect: we will try to understand people in order to then understand the society they are living in.